This helpless feeling was too familiar for Ravens defenders — a sense that they could not organize themselves to slow the avalanche rolling their way, about to wipe out a lead that had seemed secure just a few minutes earlier.
In the locker room after the Miami Dolphins had wrought their swift carnage before a shellshocked crowd at M&T Bank Stadium, Ravens defensive backs spoke in doleful tones about communication lapses and urgent fixes. Their faith in the greater mission was not shaken, they insisted, but some of the same players had said these same things in 2021, when a secondary expected to be among the best in football finished dead last in pass defense.
Were they stuck in some terrible loop, where reality would never match their best-laid plans?
The Ravens will begin to answer this question Sunday against the New England Patriots. They have said they cannot afford to be haunted by images from their 42-38 loss to the Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa’s passes arcing inevitably downfield as Tyreek Hill sprinted past defensive backs who did not seem to know which of them should pick up the sport’s most feared deep threat. They have promised swift repairs.
“How we respond to this,” coach John Harbaugh told them in the losing locker room, “that will be the story.”
Fixing what ails the Ravens seems easier said than done, however, after Tagovailoa threw for 469 yards and six touchdowns against them in a performance that echoed similar catastrophes from last year, engineered by Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals (416 and 525 yards in a pair of blowouts), Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders (435 yards in the season opener) and Carson Wentz of the Indianapolis Colts (402 yards in a game the Ravens came back to win in overtime).
These body blows shaped general manager Eric DeCosta’s priorities for the offseason. “The attrition that we faced in the secondary, it just overwhelmed us toward the end of the year, and it wasn’t the players’ fault,” he said in summing up 2021. “I guess it was my fault. We just didn’t have enough good corners; we just didn’t have enough guys.”
So he committed $70 million to free-agent safety Marcus Williams, used three draft picks, including No. 14 overall (Kyle Hamilton), on defensive backs, and added veteran cornerback Kyle Fuller for extra security. DeCosta also had faith that 2019 All-Pros Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters would be back in fighting form after injuries cut short their 2021 seasons.
DeCosta had long stated his belief that a modern NFL defense must be constructed from the backfield in, and he was determined to have enough skilled bodies on hand this time around. The Ravens entered 2022 with more salary cap dollars committed to defensive backs than all but two other teams, according to Spotrac.com. If they were to return to the league’s elite, the secondary would be one of the central reasons.
DeCosta’s efforts drew rave reviews. In June, the scouting and analytics website Pro Football Focus said he had assembled the league’s best secondary while adding a note of caution: “The Ravens simultaneously have some of the most question marks heading into 2022 from a health perspective while also possessing the highest-end elite potential. Four of their five starters have earned top-10 grades at their respective positions at some point over the past four seasons. And this list doesn’t even include rookie first-rounder Kyle Hamilton, who will undoubtedly factor in heavily.”
Ah, the “health perspective,” a caveat the Ravens cannot seem to escape when it comes to their defensive backs.
By the time they lined up to face the Dolphins last weekend, the secondary was already less robust than they had envisioned. Fuller tore his ACL on the 80th snap he played in their season-opening win over the New York Jets. Humphrey was limited by a sore groin. Peters was ready to play for the first time in 20 months but under a snap restriction. Second-year defensive back Brandon Stephens, whose versatility is essential, was sidelined by a quadriceps injury.
The Ravens would have to rely on rookie fourth-round picks Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion “Pepe” Williams to help cover the fearsome pass-catching duo of Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Hamilton would also be asked to play an important role in creating a safety net behind the cornerbacks.
We know the results were not pretty: 11 catches for 190 yards for Hill and 11 for 170 for Waddle, who took advantage of confusion in the Baltimore secondary to catch three touchdowns in the last eight minutes of the game. They became the first pair of NFL teammates to post those stat lines or better in a game.
So how dark an omen is this for the Ravens’ efforts to resurrect their pass defense, which ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA as recently as 2019?
They faced Miami with their cupboard half empty. Humphrey played 56 of 71 defensive snaps, Peters 44 of 71. Both could be close to 100% in a few weeks. Stephens returned to practice Wednesday and said he hopes to play against the Patriots. If they don’t suffer any new injuries, the picture will brighten even without tactical adjustments.
But the Ravens were in no mood to blame their continuing health troubles for the communication breakdowns against the Dolphins.
“It doesn’t matter who’s in there, we’re expected to do the job at a high level,” said Armour-Davis, who learned secondary play under the famously exacting Nick Saban at Alabama. “It doesn’t matter how young you are, how old you are. So that’s never even a discussion: ‘Hey, that was a rookie.’ It’s, ‘Hey, someone didn’t do what they were supposed to do. Someone didn’t communicate.’”
Hamilton described his immediate regret upon seeing a pass go airborne and realizing he was out of position to defend it. “At this level, people are going to take advantage of your mental errors,” he said. “You can’t use being a rookie as an excuse. Guys are trusting me to be in the right place, the right time. It sucks to let coaches down, fans down, family down but most of all my teammates, because I’m with them every day. To have mental errors like that, it’s unacceptable.”
Harbaugh balanced his disappointment at amateurish mistakes with understanding that some of the players involved were seeing their first significant NFL action.
“I did not expect those things to happen in this game, but I also understand that we have some young guys back there,” he said. “We’re throwing guys out there for the first time in an NFL game against some fast players, and things are moving fast, and the game is on the line. That can happen, so if we had a veteran group back there, I’d be more concerned about it, but I think those young guys are going to learn fast.”
It’s easy to blame miscommunication for a play such as Hill’s 60-yard game-tying touchdown. Safeties Williams and Hamilton lined up on the other side of the field near the line of scrimmage and neither had a prayer of scrambling back in time to support Armour-Davis, who seemed to think he would have a teammate behind him. It’s harder to explain how the team’s defensive backs will learn to talk such lapses out of existence.
“It’s a group thing. It’s a group effort,” Stephens said. “We don’t point the finger. We just have to work all on one accord. We just have to work as a unit. I’m confident. … We’re not beating our heads too hard about it.”
How does a secondary practice communicating? Armour-Davis went back to a mantra from training camp: “Overemphasize it. In practice, it doesn’t matter if everybody hears it; make sure people outside the facility hear it. It doesn’t matter if you know your guy heard it. Just continue to say it. Overemphasize everything, because those mistakes can’t happen.”
Coaches can only pound this message so far, the rookie added: “It’s kind of within. It’s the players who have to go out and do it. We’re the ones who have to communicate on the field, so it’s a message from within.”
First-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, also in the spotlight after the loss, believes improvements will flow from those conversations between players. “There is communication, especially with the vets and how they see things and how they want to play stuff,” he said. “That’s kind of sparking more dialogue as we prep for new teams. I’m happy with what they’re doing with it.”
The Ravens know they’re in for savage backlash if they go through another season of results not living up to preseason hype. It began this week, with ESPN analyst and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. “They’re busting coverages, their communication is bad, they can’t finish games anymore,” Ryan said on the network’s “Get Up” morning show. “This new hotshot coordinator [Macdonald] is terrible.”
“They can make all the statements they want to make, but they’re not coaching anybody right now,” Harbaugh said in a not-so-veiled response to his former assistant.
But players acknowledged that if they don’t answer with better performance, the narrative will persist. The doldrums of 2021 will become the doldrums of 2022.
“We never expect to be second, let alone last,” Armour-Davis said. “We always expect to be the best. Give the Dolphins credit. They executed their game plan, and we didn’t. But we know we made a lot of self-wound mistakes, so we know if we get those cleaned up — when we get those cleaned up — we’ll be where we want to be.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 2 1/2